Now that it seems clear that Donald Trump will face Hillary Clinton in the general election (way to go, America!), a few observations are in order.
First, yes, Trump could win. However unlikely it may seem today, do not underestimate the intensity of his support or the capacity of Americans to be seduced by the shiny new thing (see here). For Trump to win, however, he must dramatically change the electoral map. Unlike others, I am skeptical that he can do so in ways that are beneficial to him. Yes, Trump may peel off a vote here and there from the Democratic column, but for every voter that he seduces into his camp, he will drive at least one, and perhaps two, away. That is not a winning strategy. He cannot win with white men or Reagan Democrats alone. He must peel off a substantial percentage of Sanders supporters, women, and ethnic minorities. He must also hope for Sanders supporters, if they do not move to him, to stay home in November. So for those who can do math, a Trump victory seems impossible right now. But do not rule it out. And his legitimacy will be at least enhanced, however minimally, by more mainstream Republicans coming to his side.
Second, it is likely that Hillary Clinton will lead the polls throughout the summer, and perhaps well into the Fall. This will have a two-pronged effect. It will prohibit Trump from giving speeches and rallies in which all he does is tout his lead. He has lived off of that particular land this primary election cycle, but that strategy is likely at an end come summer. Consequently, because he neither knows nor understands anything about governance or policy, and therefore will not be able to duel Clinton on substance, his only resort will be insults and entertainment. Now, he was likely to do that anyway, but doing so without a polling lead is far different than doing it with a polling lead. And this behavior will have the effect of further alienating groups that he needs.
Third, Trump says he has “not even started” on Clinton yet. Maybe. But Clinton has not really even started on Trump yet, either. And Trump has not faced anything like the Clinton attack machine. Clinton’s people know that Trump is thin-skinned, prone to being baited, petulant, childish, and uninformed. They will exploit that every day of this campaign.
Fourth, as Steve Schmidt said recently, the Trump-Clinton debates will be global television events – perhaps among the most watched events in the history of television (Schmidt likens it to the moon landing; I’m thinking Charles and Diana’s wedding). If the debates are relatively low-key affairs with no audience noise and questions devoted exclusively to policy, Clinton will possess a decided advantage. Trump could have prepped himself for this by debating Ted Cruz one-on-one to get a feel for this kind of environment. He chose not to do so (for understandable reasons), and now his first prime-time, one-on-one, real political debate will be only weeks before the election against one of the most skilled debaters in politics. Good luck.
Fifth, down-ballot Republicans will be permanently stamped (tainted?) with the “Trumpian Republican” label. As Lawrence O’Donnell (one of the few political show hosts who has been responsible in talking about Trump’s candidacy, focusing far more on actual qualifications for the presidency than the horse race) indicated on his show this week, this is already starting to happen. Ads will run non-stop tying every Republican candidate to Trump and every one of his idiotic statements – unless the candidate explicitly disavows Trump. And that will not be helpful to Trump in those jurisdictions.
Fifth, related to the first observation above, while it is true that some Republicans or others may quietly support Trump, do not underestimate the number of Republicans who will quietly vote for Hillary Clinton (or not so quietly, as the “Republicans for Clinton” movement seems publicly apace). I made this case way back in the early Fall, but I think it is even more notable now that the race has at last become a Trump-Clinton race. This group, which could be 15-20% of the Republican vote, will perhaps not do so loudly. They will not put Clinton bumper stickers on their cars, or Clinton yard signs around their homes. They probably will not even tell their close friends, or even family members, that they are doing so, and they probably will not tell a pollster. But when it comes time to fill in that ballot in November, they will quietly cast their vote for Clinton. So even if some do the same thing, but for Trump, there would not be a net gain for Trump – and he needs a net gain to change the math.
Sixth, and related to the previous observation, Clinton should reach out to Republicans. That will not be easy, given how far to the Left that she has had to move in order to compete with Bernie Sanders. But a move toward the center, and an effort to bring along disaffected moderate Republicans, could go a long way in November. Yes, this may alienate some of the Sanders voters and those Democrats farther Left, but my sense is that most Democrats already know the truth: Clinton is a center-Left figure (probably center-Right on many foreign policy matters) and she certainly is not a Liberal in the Sanders mold. But they will take her over Trump.